Men’s Fashion at Work: The Case Against Khakis

Today’s casual corporate culture encourages men to wear the same boring uniform. But by dressing up, I found I was happier and more successful at work.

Image by  victoriabee/ Getty Images

The culture of work is changing, and with it, our office dress codes. As companies encourage staffers to bring their whole selves to work — and people embrace style repeats and “personal uniforms” in an effort to de-stress workwear — Thrive decided to take a deeper look into how what we wear to work affects our mental well-being, creativity, productivity, and authenticity. We welcome you to take a spin through our special section: The Psychology of What We Wear to Work

Many men in the business world today seem to wear a uniform: chinos or khakis and a button-up on normal days, maybe a navy or gray suit on a day when they have an important meeting or event. I get the sense they want to be comfortable and want to fit in, and not think too much about how they look. To which I say…. boring!

I have always cared about fashion just a little bit more than most men do, searching for cool stuff online and browsing thrift stores in search of the perfect addition to my wardrobe. Where some people prefer neutrals, I prefer pants with a distinct herringbone pattern. If some guys stick to white and blue Oxfords, I believe real men wear pink and yellow and every other color you can think of.

But though I’ve always loved clothes, I didn’t always feel comfortable revealing that at work — I was concerned that I would be seen as superficial or flashy and not hard working. As a fresh college graduate joining the work world, I opted to be more conservative. During my first week of training as an analyst, I observed that the standard office uniform at my company consisted of slacks and a button-up shirt daily, and so I conformed to the unspoken dress code. But this did not sit well with me, so I began to think about how I could dress differently than the rest of my cohort. At first I was tentative. Some days, I might wear a tie with a unique pattern or, during warmer months, I’d break out some pastel-colored slacks. Eventually, I upgraded to wearing a bespoke blazer even though no one else did.

Part of my reason for dressing this way was personal self expression — something in me just wanted to push the envelope. But soon enough, I realized that dressing well — and differently — actually helped me to be more effective at my job.

When you tuck a pocket square into your jacket pocket, it’s not uncommon for your colleagues to acknowledge your attention to detail. With clients, wearing a brightly-colored pair of pants or a cool set of wingtips can be a conversation starter. People will often ask me, Where did you get that blazer? Who tailors your suits? Does your girlfriend pick out your clothing? After hearing any one of these questions, I usually chuckle, answer the question, then jokingly state that I’m a “fashionisto.”

But already the ice has been broken, a bond has been formed. People remember me, which is a surprisingly important advantage in today’s economy where so much work involves partnerships and distributed teams and matrixed organizations.

Today I work at a startup, and though many young companies are the land of guys in unwashed jeans and drab hoodies, I feel less restricted and more able to dress however I want. Some days, that’s a three-piece suit, and other days it’s jeans and a particularly beloved pair of sneakers.

Ultimately, I think too many men in today’s work world dress as though they are only trying to fit in, and I understand that impulse. But by dressing well in an age of casualness, you can really stand out from the crowd. And as I build my career and grow as a professional, that’s exactly what I want to do.

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More on the Psychology of What We Wear to Work:

7 Lessons from Jonathan Van Ness and DVF About Life, Confidence and Fashion

5 Fashion Tips to Get Out the Door 20 Minutes Faster

Rethinking Your Work Style After Maternity Leave 

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